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Hermeneutics at the Crossroads

In the summer of 2002 fifteen scholars from a variety of disciplines went to a hermeneutics summer camp. Organizer, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, selected an eclectic group of fourteen other participants from a pool of 45 applicants. These fifteen participants, as well as a few other special guests, participated in a five-week seminar that was, in the words of Vanhoozer, “less a vacation than a vigorous workout.”

The fruits of this workout were published earlier this year in a volume for the Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion. Hermeneutics, say the editors, “is indeed at many crossroads.” These crossroads are at least four: 1) the intersection of disciplines; 2) a critical point in history; 3) cultural-linguistic traditions; and 4) a theological dimension.

The articles in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads address these crossroads by “traversing intersections between different disciplines, genres, languages, and religious commitments.” Vanhoozer, along with fellow editors, James K. A. Smith and Bruce Ellis Benson, organize the articles into four parts: 1) philosophical hermeneutics in dialogue with Gadamer; 2) engagements with the radicalization of hermeneutics in Derrida and deconstruction; 3) explorations of the theories of interpretation that emerge from literature; and 4) investigations into the intersection of interpretation and ethics.

The first part consists of contributions by Vanhoozer himself, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Eduardo J. Echeverria and Christina Bieber Lake. I am particularly interested in the articles by Vanhoozer and Wolterstorff, wherein the authors offer a descriptive treatment of hermeneutics and a challenge to focus on the text as illocutionary act of the author, respectively.

The second section of the book where discussions of Gadamer give way to treatments of Derrida and deconstruction is comprised of articles by John D. Caputo and James K. A. Smith. Smith’s essay is more interesting primarily because he challenges both Vanhoozer and Wolterstorff who are among those who criticize Derrida based on Searle’s misreading of Derrida, a misreading mediated by American English departments.

Roger Lundin, Brian McCrea, and Michael VanderWeele contribute articles to the third part of the book which turns more directly to literature. These essays begin with literary icons such as Faulkner and Defoe. Lundin’s attempt to show that Faulkner “provides a middle way between the ideas that interpretation is either a return to the past or simply a reflection on the present,” is the most intriguing article, to me, in this section.

Finally, in the fourth part of the collection, Bruce Ellis Benson, Ben Faber, and Norman Lillegard address interpretation and ethics. (I wonder if this section might not echo some of Character & Scripture.) Benson’s analogy of interpretation as jazz improvisation and Lillegard’s of interpretation as conversation (I have heard this somewhere before! Oh, that’s right, my dissertation.) look interesting and will no doubt receive my time.

I hope to tackle the chapters I have noted above and provide a short synopsis with comments here on the blog. In the meantime, get the book for yourself and read it. Conversations about hermeneutics are, to my mind, the most interesting ones taking place in biblical studies and theology.

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